Friday legend: Jeff Chambers
Jeff Chambers now works as an account executive for a Charlotte firm called Stealth Components.
That seems appropriate because Chambers, a North Rowan graduate, was one of the more deceptive athletes in county history.
His thick, square body and toothy smile gave opponents the wrong first impression, but underneath that stubby exterior lurked an amazing athlete with an explosive lower body and the heart of a champion. Had he been fortunate enough to be 6-foot-4 instead of 6 feet tall, Chambers may well have played in the NFL.
Chambers is 30, young but seasoned enough to get the big picture. He’s prouder of being a college graduate ó his family hadn’t had one before his generationó than the honors he won in football, track and wrestling. He’s prouder of his Dean’s List appearances at Western Carolina than of making All-Southern Conference.
Chambers first got noticed when he was at North Rowan Middle. Not only did he break conference records in the shot put and discus, he challenged the little guys in the sprints. He dominated football as a 250-pound running back. He was the school’s Outstanding Citizen and won a scholarship to attend Mack Brown’s UNC camp.
Chambers arrived at North as a freshman in 1993. North had gone to the 3A state championship game the season before, and it moved down to 2A. Chambers figured it was his time to score touchdowns by the bushel.
“I was thinking I’d be the running back,” Chambers said. “It was (assistant coach) Robert Steele that set me straight.”
Steele informed Chambers he was a defensive tackle. Steele and veterans Travis Hairston and Shelton Cureton were his mentors, and Chambers proved a quick study once he got over his initial shock.
“There was a good lesson in it,” Chambers said. “You don’t always get to play the position you want to play.
“Don’t get discouraged. You can still help the team.”
Chambers proved a natural on the defensive line. Powerful and blessed with a dancer’s feet, he was unblockable.
North won the Yadkin Valley Conference. Chambers was voted to the first of his four all-county teams. No one had ever made it as a freshman.
“That was the year of (quarterback) Mitch Ellis,” Chambers said. “He was breaking records, and we unleashed a passing attack like people had never seen. It felt good to be a freshman on all-county, but I felt bad for Hairston because he wasn’t all-county. He was the guy who taught me how to play.”
In Chambers’ sophomore season, the Cavaliers had one of the top teams in school history. They were 12-2, reached the 1994 state quarterfinals and tied the school record for victories.
That’s the season North beat West Rowan twice, including a 34-30 shootout in the second round of the playoffs. It’s also the season North lost in overtime to Albemarle in the first regular-season meeting of 10-0 teams in state history.
“That’s the year we introduced the hambone offense,” Chambers said.
North coach Roger Secreast used the hambone in short-yardage situations, and it usually meant a handoff to Chambers, who relived his days as a running back. He pounded into the end zone 13 times. He scored three TDs in a game twice.
Best of all, this time Hairston joined him on the all-county team.
“North was the big dog on the block,” Chambers said. “People knew who we were.”
The record book agrees. Rowan football in the 1990s belonged to Secreast, his staff and talented players. North won 79 games in the decade, 21 more than runner-up East Rowan.
Chambers moved to nose guard his final two prep seasons and dominated at 278 pounds. That’s the position at which he’s remembered.
“I tried to learn everything about playing nose,” he said. “I was a sponge soaking up knowledge.”
His senior year, Chambers was YVC Defensive Player of the Year and Rowan County Defensive Player of the Year, but his shining moment was yet to come.
North Carolina’s Shrine Bowl head coach in 1996 was A.L. Brown’s Bruce Hardin, who had watched Chambers battle the Wonders for four years. Hardin brought three quarterbacks to the Shrine Bowl. He brought only one nose guard ó Chambers.
Chambers remembers Dec. 21, 1996. That’s the day he found out he’d made All-State. It’s also the day North Carolina beat South Carolina 21-14. Chambers got up from the bottom of each pile on each running play. The Sandlappers averaged 1 yard per carry in the first half.
“South Carolina had 14 guys who went big-time D-I, six who played years in the NFL,” Chambers said. “We had only two or three big recruits. No way we should have won, but we were motivated and had an excellent coach. Roger Secreast will always be No. 1, but Bruce Hardin was great.”
Chambers won a $2,500 Sparkplug Award for his leadership during the Shrine Bowl week. That opened new doors. He learned he could lead even at a convention of talented athletes.
Wake Forest watched him closely but never offered. His college choice came down to Appalachian State or Western Carolina. ASU thought it had him, but Chambers woke up the morning of National Signing Day and decided to go to Western with close friend and North quarterback Craig Powers. Even a last-minute trip by ASU coach Jerry Moore to Spencer couldn’t sway Chambers.
Chambers was named Rowan County Athlete of the Year and performed admirably in the East-West game before arriving at Western. He expected to start. The Catamounts told him he would redshirt.
“I was discouraged, ready to come home,” Chambers said. “Coach Steele and Coach Secreast talked me out of it. In the long run, it was the best thing. I learned the system that year and got a big jump academically. I was always a year ahead.”
He started at nose guard for four years. He was up to 298 pounds by then and bench-pressing 455.
He made a bunch of tackles in a game against LSU, but his legacy was Western’s 23-6 victory against Appalachian State in 1998, its first win against the Mountaineers since 1984.
“It was televised on Fox SportsSouth and we beat ’em decisively,” Chambers said. “The alumni was up in arms that day. You could see the excitement. That was the stickler game.”
Celebrating on the field, Chambers looked around and saw a grinning Secreast, a proud member of Western’s Class of 1971. Life was pretty good.
“I was proud to be part of a turnaround while I was there,” Chambers said. “I came in, we were 4-7. We were 7-4 my senior year.”
Chambers was All-Southern Conference in football twice and all-conference in track three times. He excelled in events, such as the weight throw and the hammer, he’d never tried until he got to college.
He was involved in countless community projects in Cullowhee and named to the AFCA Good Works team, the All-America squad for public service.
He didn’t get a great chance at pro ball. It hurt that his coaches were fired his senior year.
“We had never had a pro day, never had anyone to send film out,” Chambers said. “My agent did get me a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons and with Toronto in the Canadian League. But I wasn’t 6-4, and you can’t teach height.”
Chambers played Arena football in Greenville, S.C., for the Carolina Rhinos in 2002, but he knew by then his future was in business.
“Football had taken me as far as it could,” he said.
He’s 15 pounds under his playing weight now, but his athletic endeavors are limited to his flag-football team that includes former Carolina Panthers running backs Rod “He Hate Me” Smart and Dee Brown.
“Just a weekend warrior now,” Chambers said with a laugh.
He still follows North Rowan every Friday and is confident a return to glory is in the cards.
And each visit to his mother is a reminder of his finest day in football. In her foyer is a picture of Chambers in the Shrine Bowl for all the world to see.
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